A recent story by Houston TV station KTRK, an ABC affiliate, suggests there is growing evidence that NASA administrator Charles Bolden ignored the law when he chose cities where the space shuttle orbiters would be displayed.
Almost as disturbing, Bolden did not gather any data that supported his decision even according to the criteria he had selected, which is the amount of tourist traffic each venue chosen attracts.
The 2010 NASA budget bill instructed NASA to award space shuttle orbiters to cities that had an historic relationship with the shuttle program. That would suggest Houston would have a lock on one of the shuttles, according to the law. But another clause inserted in the legislative language added the consideration should be given to relationships to retrieval of NASA spacecraft.
Since the USS Intrepid, now a floating museum in New York, was involved in the recovery of a Mercury and a Gemini capsule in the early 1960s, a loophole that was apparently wide enough to float an aircraft carrier was opened. New York got a space shuttle and Houston did not.
What is more, Bolden established a points system that did not include a city's relationship with the space shuttle program, even though it was required by law. But points were awarded for how many foreign tourists could access the venues where the shuttle orbiters were displayed, though that was not mentioned in the law.
NASA failed to gather key information that related to the numbers of foreign tourists who visited the venues in Washington, New York and KSC that were awarded shuttles and for Space Center Houston, which was not. Space Center Houston was not informed that museum accreditation was a factor in awarding a shuttle.
The risk of transporting a shuttle was also factored inconsistently, with New York, which involves a 1,100 mile flight and a 14 mile ground trip, given the same amount of points as the Kennedy Space Center, which involves only an eight mile trip.
The NASA Inspector General concluded there was no political skullduggery involved in the selection of cities to display space shuttle orbiters. But Texas lawmakers, who perceived that there was political bias against Texas involved in the decision, would seem to be vindicated by the current revelations.
The question is, what comes next? Could Texas lawmakers move to compel NASA to follow the law and display a space shuttle orbiter in Houston? Could the city of Houston, based on the above revelations, file a lawsuit? Both efforts are a real possibility. That means the final disposition of the space shuttle orbiter fleet may not be settled for years, certainly before a change in administrations.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker . He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.